Seven Warning Signs of Eating Disorders

Page content

Eating disorders are a group of disorders that induce a marked change in eating habits that negatively impact an individual’s physical and mental health. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness, eating disorders are divided into four groups. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a refusal to regulate a healthy body weight and an obsessive fear of gaining weight. Bulimia nervosa involves the consumption of a vast amount of food in a short amount of time followed by compensatory behaviors such as purging (self-induced vomiting), excessive exercise or the use of laxatives/diuretics.

Binge eating disorder involves instances of compulsive overeating, without compensatory behavior. Finally, Eating disorder not otherwise specified refers to all other disorders that do not fit the criteria for the previous disorders. The warning signs of eating disorders include physical, behavioural, cognitive and personality changes. Eating disorders are serious and life threatening. If you think you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, seek help immediately. Fortunately, eating disorders can be treated with a combination of talk therapy, lifestyle change and medication in severe cases.

Warning Signs of Eating Disorders

  • Drastic Weight Change or Weight Fluctuation

Weight markedly increasing or decreasing in a short amount of time is one of the warning signs of eating disorders. This may be associated with attempts to conceal weight loss or gain, such as wearing loose fitting clothing.

  • Other Physical Changes

Warning signs of eating disorders may not be immediately apparent, but there can be physical indications that something is wrong. Individuals with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder may feel and look bloated and complain of stomach problems. They may have puffy cheeks, red knuckles, bloodshot eyes and a hoarse throat as a result of purging behavior. Frequent purging also results in dental problems such as a loss of enamel and cavities. Individuals may therefore become sensitive to hot and cold food and visit the dentist more frequently. In extreme cases of starvation, individuals may grow fine white hair over parts of their body called lanugo.

  • Emotional Changes

Individuals may experience drastic mood swings that are uncharacteristic. These may be a result of starvation, being stressed or experiencing feelings of emptiness, anxiousness and depression. Small things may trigger them, for example going out to eat in a restaurant. Individuals may be particularly anxious or emotional following a meal. They may experience panic attacks and intense anxiety in response to food or other emotional triggers. Directly following purging, individuals with bulimia may seem excitable or anxious due to the adrenalin rush they received from purging.

  • Behavioral Changes

Individuals may exhibit an increase in exercise and other physical activities. They may avoid situations that involve food, for example dinner dates, and activities that will expose their body in some way, such as swimming. They may become withdrawn, cancelling social events and refuse to see friends. Individuals with bulimia may frequently visit the bathroom, often immediately after eating. They may tire more easily. Due to a preoccupation with food, some individuals may take up cooking, becoming food aficionados who whip up elaborate meals for their friends and family.

  • Cognitive Changes

Thoughts and behaviors may revolve around dieting, weight loss and food. Individuals may display limited insight into their behavior or minimize or deny the seriousness of it. Cognitive distortions such as “the eating disorder voice” may start to impede rationality and judgment. This voice is not the same as ‘hearing voices’, but will nevertheless tell the individual that they are worthless, undeserving and physically unattractive. Catastrophizing is one example of cognitive distortion. This is when the individual magnifies small situations or circumstances, such as thinking that life will not be worth living if they gain any weight.

  • Personality Changes

Eating disorders produce marked changes in personality. Individuals may become fastidious with timing, insisting on planning their day in minute detail. They may have a tendency towards perfection and control. As they attempt to control their eating habits and weight, so too may they become more controlling of other aspects of their life. This may become particularly salient when their eating disorder feels out of control.

  • Change in Eating Habits

Individuals may become picky and fussy, only eating specific types of foods in certain situations. A person with an eating disorder may refuse to eat standing up, for example, or only eat food they have prepared themselves. They may cut food into small pieces before eating it or eat it in a certain order. Individuals may become preoccupied with a certain diet, for example raw food, detoxing or the blood type diet. some foods may become forbidden, even in special circumstances like birthdays and holidays. Strange food combinations may be seen, and these may be eaten almost exclusively. In the case of bulimia and binge eating disorder, individuals may consume vast amounts of food in a short time frame despite not feeling hungry. These foods are generally high in fat, salt and sugar. Following the consumption of these foods, eating habits may become restrictive, with extreme dieting and occasionally fasting.